National / International News
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People have been climbing hills, mountains and rocks as a form of exercise for years. The disruptor – which is really only a couple of decades old – is doing it inside.
The first indoor climbing gym in the U.S. opened in the 1980s, but there's been a boom of late.
"These gym owners have figured out that they don’t necessarily need people who have climbed Yosemite or Annapurna," says Clare Malone, who wrote about the new climbing craze for the New Yorker. "They just need who are sort of looking for a cool, different, alternative way of working out."
Rock climbing gyms are not limited to areas that are surrounded by mountains and hills. They’re up and coming in the Midwest, and very popular in Los Angeles and New York. The new, key demographic here are millennials in cities.
"A lot of the spending in the outdoor industry, which sort of covers a range of different products and stuff, but it’s a lot of young, affluent urban people," says Malone. "People really like it because it feels so real and so tangible."
Listen to Kai's conversation with Malone above, and read more from our follow-up email interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You cite one report that estimates young urbanites account for about a third of spending on outdoor clothing and gear, while hardcore outdoorspeople account for just 17 percent. Can you trace that to the increase in indoor facilities? Or is climbing’s popularity the result of more interest in athletics — and the athletic look — among young people?
While I can't say for sure, I do think that the proliferation of climbing gym probably means that more people are buying climbing gear—a demographic of people who might not have done so 20 years ago. It's of course not just climbing alone that accounts for the uptick in sales, there's trail running, camping, etc. But for whatever reason, younger people are looking to the outdoors for exercise novelty.
But the outdoor look is also pretty popular--you look around New York this winter and you'll see a lot of Canada Down jackets, a lot of puffer coats. They're hip, as opposed to the old wool coat I'm walking around in! And I think all these outdoor brands are certainly taking advantage of that trend.
Have you noticed a meaningful difference in the way brands market to the growing number of indoor climbers, as opposed to outdoor climbers?
I don't think there's a meaningful differentiation in branding between outdoors and indoors. Outdoors is obviously the aspirational side of the sport, so I think brands typically will use those star athletes doing crazy things out on the mountains to catch an audience's attention, but they are also heavily involved in the gyms.
Over and over, people kept on telling me that almost all of the next generation of star climbers will have started in a gym and then moved outdoors. So I think they see those two markets eliding.
You mention in the piece that some larger brands are hoping to leverage the “mainstream” athletes they sponsor into more exposure for climbing. What's keeping the sport out of the mainstream? How does social media play into that?
I think climbing has typically been a subculture — hippie-dippie adventurer types who were mostly white and out west. So what we're seeing now in the sports's cultural revolution, if you will, is white urbanites appropriating the culture of crunchy white people.
Quite a few people in the climbing world expressed the hope that the proliferation of gyms in certain areas would open up this narrow demographic. And social media is definitely part of this. The sport has also tended to be more male — but again, a lot of people I talked with are hoping that this opens up, and that more women and girls get involved.
The moment where the sport's at right now might be, one person told me, how gymnastics was right before it reached critical mass: Got some superstars, and pretty soon little girls all over America were taking Saturday morning tumbling classes.
This quote stuck out to me, from a climbing gym co-owner: “Are we selling climbing or are we selling this vibe?” To what degree are people in the climbing industry comfortable with this kind of attention?
I think that's a question that certainly cuts to the heart of a culture clash — or perhaps it's better to say a "slight discomfort" — that maybe more seasoned, hardcore climbers have.
To a certain degree, no matter what you're talking about — music, sports, a cult movie — early adaptors love being the ones who were in-the-know, who liked it before it was cool.
So I think some people are rubbed the wrong way by climbing gyms that see themselves as event venues rather than hardcore training facilities. But the people on the business side —apparel makers and gym owners alike — couldn't be happier with the spike in popularity.
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The next time you pull out your checkbook to pay that hefty tuition bill or pay down your student loan, consider this: there are countries where students pay nothing to attend university. Denmark, Sweden and Germany for example all have tuition-free college.
WGBH Radio’s "On Campus" team wondered how these countries do it, and if there are things the U.S. can learn from their model. Their search to understand how German universities keep costs down and quality up began in the Rhineland.
It was a frigid evening on the banks of the Rhine in the medieval city of Cologne. Under the vaulted ceiling of an old Gothic church, the 80-piece university orchestra was tuning up.
In the land of Beethoven and Handel, it makes sense that a university would invest a lot in its orchestra. But that commitment extends far beyond the music program. In Germany, one of the world's wealthiest countries, taxpayers fully subsidize the cost of public higher education. While American students now graduate with an average of nearly $30,000 of debt, college in Germany has always been free.
Since tuition is free here, German students don’t really worry about student loan debt. Instead, they worry about their exams or learning a trade. Seventy percent of the students at the University of Cologne work part-time jobs. Students, parents, administrators and business leaders of all political stripes say the same thing: higher education in Germany is seen as a public good.
The University of Cologne is Germany’s largest university with 48,000 students, a medical school and a law school.
"I have to be honest, I really like this university even though it's not the most beautiful one, as you can see," says tour guide Valerija Schwarz, a Ph.D. student in German Literature.
The university’s central square swarms with bicycles. Many students bike to school or take public transportation, Schwartz explains — that’s why there’s no big parking garage.
Students park their bikes outside one of the University of Cologne's newest buildings.Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH
Students in Germany also tend to stay local, so there aren't any dorms. There are no active student clubs, or big football stadium. And every lecture hall looks huge.
“Most of the time you don't even know who is sitting next to you or who your professor is,” Schwarz says. “You just listen and then reproduce your knowledge during the exams.”All of this translates to savings: the average cost of an undergraduate degree in Germany is $32,000, paid for by the state. In the U.S., some schools charge that much for one year, and student loan debt has surpassed $1.2 trillion.
South 160 miles from the University of Cologne, tucked in the heart of Heidelberg’s quaint but vibrant city center, the University of Heidelberg offers a full program of courses from ancient history to biochemistry. It is one of Germany’s oldest and most prestigious institutions.
“A majority of German voters agree that a decent start in life includes the possibility of a free higher education,” says Frieder Wolf, a political science professor at the school.
To limit spending, Wolf says, professors teach more and earn less than their American colleagues.
"This is not to complain. I love my job and I have a lot of freedom but this is how we keep costs down — larger classrooms,” Wolf says. “We’ve got courses with 40 participants, 50 participants in the social sciences, where [American universities] might have tutorials of four or five students.”
And unlike their American counterparts, German universities have very little administrative bloat.
"Many administrative tasks for which you would have specialized personnel in the States is done by the teachers and professors here,” Wolf says.
But are German students getting the same quality learning experience?
Germany isn't widely known for having top-tier colleges like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But, says Wolf, what it does have is “reliable quality."
"With all due respect, [America has] the best colleges but [it also has] some of the worst,” Wolf says. “There’s probably a new sort of class divide between people who get there and who don’t get there, where as in Germany basically most everybody who wants to go to an average college can go there and get a decent education."
In the U.S., the closest comparison to Germany’s no-frills, low-cost higher education is probably state and community colleges. President Obama has proposed making two years of community college tuition-free for students who keep their grades up, but Republican leaders in Congress have plans to stall that plan.
"It’s a very big commitment,” says Sandy Baum, a higher education economist with the Urban Institute. “People want it to be free, but they don’t really mean they want to pay higher taxes to make it free."
Baum says Americans also don't want to give up the residential college experience, with all its bells and whistles. But, she says, the U.S. needs more affordable choices.
"In many European universities, you go and you listen to a lecture and that is what is involved in the university,” Baum says. “It’s a lot cheaper to do that than the many things that people are asking for on college campuses here. And people are voting with their feet, and we need to have multiple options."
Baum says those options should include more online learning and apprenticeships.
Willing to pay, despite free tuition
Still, there are German families who, despite the promise of free college, are willing to pay for the elite American experience.
Jane Park and two of her three children in their home in Essen, Germany.Photo by Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH
Johannes Kim and Jane Park live in Essen, a neighboring city 50 miles north of Cologne. In the kitchen one recent evening, as Park prepares dinner, their three small children were listening to an opera lesson on tape.
Kim graduated from the University of Heidelberg and he thinks the opportunity to build relationships with professors is something you really can't put a price tag on. He wants their kids to attend schools with strong brand recognition.
"The American college experience is something that instills some sort of emotional bond to your university. That is something that is completely missing from the German system,” Kim says. “Although I went to the oldest university in Germany, there is not the feeling that I'm a proud alumni or graduate of that school."
Park, who is Korean-American, finds Germany's tuition-free model appealing, though she's conflicted about the American system.
"I like to think that I have a strong sense of social justice and great education is almost reserved for the elite despite scholarship opportunities and financial aid,” Park says. “That, I find disturbing and in some ways I am squaring, 'OK, do I want to feed my children into that sort of system?’”
Their kids are young, so it will be a while before they go to college. And by that time, there's no guarantee that Germany will still be committed to the idea of free college education.
German states are on a five-year deadline to balance their budgets, meaning states, and taxpayers, will be taking a close look at what they can afford.
This is part one in a WGHB series that examines higher education in Germany, and compares it to the challenges we face here in the U.S
British colonialists brought lamb ham to America, where a sugar-cured, smoked variety became popular. Easier-to-cure pork ham eventually took its place, but now two Virginians are bringing it back.
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